When beloved comedian Anthony ‘A.J.’ Johnson, 56, of “Friday” movie fame died earlier this month, his widow Lexis Jones Mason implored people to contribute to a GoFundMe account to pay for his funeral — and she initially criticized them for not helping financially, according to a video on TMZ. That prompted many fans on social media to wonder why the popular comedian best known for playing Ezal didn’t have life insurance.
It’s a problem Black funeral directors see all the time — struggling families resorting to crowdfunding to pay for funerals, which typically range in price between $8,000-$12,000. Too many families don't have a plan to pay for funeral expenses — and even superstars like Prince and Aretha Franklin died without wills.
“There’s a whole generation or two that hasn’t gotten the message that you need to plan for this,” said Donna Henderson, owner of Henderson's Highland Park Funeral Home in Des Moines — one of two Black-owned funeral homes in Iowa. “You have to save money for this, or purchase insurance for this, in order to take care of it.”
Henderson decried the expectation that strangers are expected to pay for the funerals of others.
“I buried my momma,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you bury yours? I think it’s very presumptuous to ask everybody else to help you take care of a responsibility that you have.”
GoFundMe, which allows users to create fundraisers and accept donations, has increasingly been used by families to raise money for funerals. The account Mason set up currently has more than $52,000. She listed $20,000 as the goal for Johnson’s homegoing service, with the remaining balance going to his children and grandchildren for “ongoing support,” according to her GoFundMe post.
“We plan for everything except for this last trip,” said Hari P. Close II, president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, which is based in Georgia, and represents Black funeral professionals. “That’s the conversation we need to have. As difficult as it is, it’s something that needs to be talked about.”
Breanne Ward is a licensed mental health counselor in Des Moines who leads ForWard Consulting, a mental health private practice and consulting firm. She said death is a taboo topic for many — especially for Black families.
“Life planning has been something that has not been expected because our mortality is always on the line,” she said, pointing to the health disparities Blacks experience compared to other racial groups.
Ward suggested reframing the conversation away from mortality being a "forbidden subject the Black community doesn't talk about."
“Being able to redirect this conversation into legacy building and reducing the residual burden on our future generations should be the goal,” she said. “Our community should be welcoming community services that assist with death, versus transmitting unhealthy cultural norms down to their generations.”
The coronavirus pandemic has cut more than 100,000 Blacks Americans' lives short and caused unexpected financial burdens. Iowa has had 2,377 applicants request FEMA funds to pay for the funerals of those who have died of COVID-19. FEMA has approved 1,618 awards for a total of $11.6 million, as of Sept. 20.
“I can't tell you how many times I've had people say, ‘Well, I'll let the kids worry about it. I won't be here,’” Henderson said. “Why would you leave that kind of responsibility to children that are already struggling? Why would you leave the responsibility of your final care to them?”
People are superstitious about pre planning — thinking that talking about their death can hasten it, she said. She tried offering funeral planning sessions, but said no one showed up.
“Black people are really superstitious about that. ‘Oh, I don't want to pay for my funeral ahead of time, that might rush me into the grave,’” she said.
People make elaborate plans to take vacations not knowing if they’ll be able to go, she said.
“Same thing with a funeral,” she said. “It’s in the future. Prepare for that too.”
Figuring out how to pay for a funeral while in shock and grieving can plunge a family into “chaos,” Close said.
Henderson said funeral costs, which are customized for families, can vary greatly. Funeral costs typically include the price for picking up the deceased, embalming, visitation, service, a casket, burial and the burial vault. Additional services, like adding a horse drawn carriage, will increase the costs, she said. Also, cemetery-associated fees and monuments must be paid separately.
Henderson's accepts cash, check, credit card and insurance assignment. If finances are a concern, cremation is less expensive, she said.
$2,070 for direct cremation
$4,000 for direct cremation and memorial service
$7,000 for funeral service and direct cremation (including rental casket)
$10,000-$12,000 for a traditional service with burial
Close said cremations, which were once taboo in the Black community, now account for 40% of his business. He advises families not to get all the “bells and whistles” and to make economically sound decisions.
“I’m saying to the families: Stop trying to impress other people — because at the end of the day, you have to live,” he said.
The time to start thinking about paying for funeral expenses is long before you ever need to, both Close and Henderson agree.
Twenty years ago, most people had $10,000 policies, which was enough to cover everything, Henderson said.
“Our prices have not changed a lot, but people’s perceptions of how they should pay for it has,” she said.
Younger people don’t see the benefit or urgency to have life insurance, she said. Even those who do have insurance are at risk.
“If you're struggling with your finances, the first thing you'll let go is the life insurance,” Henderson said. “The second thing that goes is the car insurance, and then the third thing is going to be your health insurance.”
That's where crowdfunding can become a last resort.
“For years and years, death care has been shrouded in mystery — behind the veil — you didn't tell what happened. Well, it's a business with a process like everybody else,” she said.
Henderson said she works with families to help them best determine the kind of service they can afford, but regularly hears pleas.
“It’s always, 'Ms. Henderson, can you help us out? Is there anything that you can take off?’” she said.
While it’s African culture to barter and bargain, that doesn’t happen when families go to white-owned funeral homes, she said.
“They pay what’s on the contract,” she said.
Black communities don't often know the hefty expenses that come with operating a funeral home, Henderson and Close agreed.
She said: “And if my cars are raggedy, they're gonna talk about me: ‘We gave Ms. Henderson all that money for the funeral, and look at the raggedy cars . . . look at that same old furniture.’”
The lingering pandemic forced changes to the funeral home industry, they said.
“Our budgets can't stand the big funerals that we used to do. People don't attend funerals like they used to, especially now with the pandemic,” she said.
Sadly, some people never pick up their loved ones’ cremains even though funeral homes are legally prohibited from holding a person’s body or cremains “hostage” for outstanding balances, she said. She even inherited some urns when she purchased the building 20 years ago, which is situated on the city's north side.
“They say, 'I just can't come right now. I just can't.' And so, we'll hang on to people for a while, until they are emotionally ready," she said.
Henderson said there's a need in the Black community for financial education. She said talking about retirement, Social Security, paying off a mortgage and final expenses is financial planning.
“Older people don't talk about that with their children. They think that’s not their business, but you have to talk about that, so that families know what they're supposed to do," she said. "If you're not going to plan your funeral and prepay for your funeral, you have to at least talk about it with your children to let them know what it is you want.”
Henderson said it’s smart for people in their 20s and 30s to purchase insurance when the rates are low. She also cautioned people that new life insurance policies don’t pay out in the first two years. Burial insurance is also an option, she said.
“You know how much it is, and then it’s just like putting it on layaway,” she said. “You make payments toward that.”
Close said churches and other organizations need to have conversations about funeral planning with their members.
GoFundMe can take two to five days to transfer the money from fundraisers to the recipient's account, according to the website. That is too long for the funeral home to wait, which is paying for the families' selections upfront, Close said.
The fees charged by GoFundMe include charges for transactions and debit and credit card fees, which are deducted from each donation.
“For Black folks, we are lucky to get $200 in donations no matter how tragic the story is,” Henderson said.
"When you have a celebrity or some crisis in the country and they see GoFundMe and all that money, it looks great, but the average GoFundMe, they're not getting that type of support financially," Close said.
Close said it's important for people to learn about insurance and pre-planning so they're not "pleading" at the last minute.
Banner photo credit: Anthony Johnson in a scene from the movie, "I Got the Hook Up." Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).
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